Chapter 11: Deep Trouble
Gnarl blinked when Master Thorn returned to the throne room. He'd expected the Master to take his time with the traitor.
"You've notified them all?" the Master asked without preamble. Within moments of him dropping into his throne the fingers of his left hand tapped restlessly on the stone arm.
"Yes, Sire. Every port has your orders." Apparently his time in the dungeons hadn't been sufficient to work off his temper: that meant Gnarl would need to tread carefully. He was accustomed to soothing ruffled Overlordly tempers, but never before after something he considered a failure.
The simple truth was that Gnarl couldn't remember ever having failed his Overlord this catastrophically, and he had no idea what he should do.
Master Thorn nodded. "Good." He beckoned.
Gnarl sighed under his breath and obeyed the silent command.
"Explain." That single word was accompanied by a fierce glare.
Gnarl's ears drooped. "Apologies, Sire." This was definitely a time when starting with apologies was indicated. "There were no problems with any of the other shipments of slaves, and that batch seemed no different. I neglected to examine them individually." Any objections about a lack of time would be useless. He could have housed the new slaves in the uppermost levels of the Tower dungeons until they'd been examined, or even in a storeroom come to that.
The slow tap of the Master's armored fingers on stone grated on Gnarl's nerves.
"How did they get hold of enough gas to put the entire Tower to sleep?" Lightning crackled around the Master's fingers.
It took all Gnarl's self-control not to step back. "One of them was in the private quarters, Sire, and no doubt provided your Mistresses with small amounts to assist them to sleep." It really was unfortunate that there was no way to ensure a slave's compliance short of destroying their ability to think for themselves. They simply lacked the strength to be properly turned to the Master's will.
That meant a degree of risk with every slave in the Tower: they had to be trusted to handle some things. Until today, Gnarl would have said that nothing the slaves had access to could threaten the Tower. "I will investigate how they were able to keep so much hidden, Lord." That particular elvish concoction wasn't easy to come by, and enough to put the whole cursed Tower to sleep had to be close to the Netherworld's entire stock.
It could have been worse, Gnarl reminded himself. If the traitors had been able to collect more of it, there could have been dead Mistresses instead ofor as well as kidnapped spawnlings. Possibly dead Gnarl as well. Not that this was something he could safely tell Master Thorn right now.
The entire Netherworld would be walking on nails until the Master had his spawnlings back. Gnarl didn't dare consider what would happen if the Master's spawnlings were harmed. While there would certainly be a magnificent slaughter, Gnarl's head was far too likely to be among those that rolled, which rather took the enjoyment out of it.
Rather than dwell on that prospect, he tried changing the subject to something more likely to put the Master in a better temper. "I gather that traitor offered little resistance, Lord."
This glare was almost physical. "Slyce is convincing him he wants to talk."
Gnarl winced. At this rate his ears were going to try to tie themselves in knots.
Despite his size, Master Thorn moved with frightening speed. One moment he was sprawled in his throne, the next he had risen and had Gnarl by the throat, holding him so Gnarl was staring directly into the glowing golden eyes.
"The only reason you haven't joined the traitor is that you're needed," the Master said in a soft, dangerous voice. "Remember that, Gnarl." He opened his fist, letting the minion master drop.
Gnarl doubted he would be able to forget.
Doniel frowned, and with a gesture froze the image that hung in the air. While he had no objections to watching his son terrorize Gnarl and to anyone who knew the old minion master, it was quite clear that was exactly what was happening the reason Gnarl was in the predicament was far more troubling.
He leaned forward, resting his chin on his left hand while his right hand drummed his knee.
It was trivial now to sift through the memories of the living to find the knowledge he desired, trivial to seek out the minds of those behind the abduction of his grandchildren. When he had first acquired that ability, it had been overwhelming, even terrifying.
The problem was what he should do with the knowledge.
If he were still merely the Overlord, there would have been no question about it. He'd retrieve the infants and slaughter everyone involved in stealing them.
That, sadly, was not an option.
Not that he couldn't do it: rather, the consequences of him acting directly were enough to terrify him.
Rose looked up from the book she'd been studying. "It's an attractive view, dear, but why the sour face?"
Doniel had to smile. He dismissed the image. "It is attractive," he admitted. "The problem is why Thorn wants to choke the little mongrel."
"Now you're insulting perfectly decent dogs." Rose didn't smile, but there was a hint of it there.
Doniel snorted. He pushed stray hair back from his face. "He got complacent, and now Thorn's children have been abducted."
"I could retrieve them
except that She has her hand in this." Doniel shook his head. "I don't know who would win if there were to be another war between gods. I'm not as strong as the Forgotten God was at his peak, but she has weakened herself too." He made a face. "Regardless, the world could never survive such a conflict."
For a moment Rose seemed frozen, then she stood, and moved to stand beside him, rested her hands on his shoulders. "That puts a different face on it," she said. "What will you do?"
Doniel considered that question before he replied. "I don't know, my love. While She is playing games, I risk too much acting directly. I happen to be rather fond of the world." He made a rude noise. "Destroying it because someone else is doing something useful with it is just petty."
Rose made a sound of disagreement. "She hasn't acted directly, as I understand it. Perhaps she's trying to undo the mess she let happen?"
He shook his head. "No. She's sowing chaos." Of that much at least, Doniel could be certain. "If she were trying to atone, she would be bringing order to her peoples."
"I wasn't aware she had any left." That was very dry indeed.
Doniel chuckled softly. "Not in the part of the world you know," he said. "In the years before the war between the gods, elves, dwarves and humans sent explorers west, certain there would be lands beyond Everlight. They were forgotten in the war, and all knowledge of them lost." He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. "Until the Empire found them mostly by accident."
Rose's hands tightened on his shoulders. "I thought the colonies were supposed to be in the Everlight Islands."
"That was what you were supposed to think," Doniel said. "It wouldn't look at all good to tell people that not only would they be colonizing land where the inhabitants fought back, they couldn't do anything about the magic. Not enough eradicators or sentinels." He didn't try to keep his amusement out of his voice.
Rose sighed. "I hobbled both those programs as much as I dared. It wasn't enough."
"Better than nothing." Doniel turned to smile at her. "If sentinels or eradicators had been able to establish themselves over there, we might have lost the elves entirely." He shook his head. "What Thorn left of Everlight is too demoralized to be much use, not that it was much in the first place. Evernight is a mere shadow clinging to existence only because the ghosts refuse to let it go."
He pulled her down to kiss her. "In their place, I couldn't say I wouldn't be dreary either."
Rose batted at his hands then settled into his lap. "You never would."
He shrugged. "In any case Everdawn is the last true hope of the elves. The dwarves of the Everwhite Ranges are also thriving, and firm allies. Perhaps more important than that, they haven't spent millenia purging their ranks of those with magical ability."
Rose hissed. "Really? I thought dwarves just weren't magical."
He nodded. "The Golden Hills dwarves are as close to unmagical as the race can get, now. Maybe one dwarf is purged in a dozen years." Doniel sighed. "Stupid, really."
"What about the human population over there?" Rose asked.
"Oh, they also thrive. And mingle freely with elves and dwarves -- so much so that there may well be a new race in the making." Now he grinned fiercely. "One that bears Her no loyalty or goodwill. None of the westerners do. They blame rather than worship."
Doniel explained. "Plainchant whine. It's magnificent."
When Thorn returned to the dungeons, the traitor's screams had devolved to hoarse cries somewhere between sobs and moans. The incoherent pleas to be allowed to tell all he knew eased the burning fury a little.
He looked no better than he sounded. Most of his skin lay on the floor of the dungeon, attached only by a band of about six inches wide around his left leg.
Thorn didn't ask how Slyce had managed to get everything off. He was quite certain he didn't need to know.
All three minions grinned at him with guileless delight.
"Him want to talk now, Master," Slyce said cheerfully.
"Him never shut up," Sear added before he turned to the green and carefully burned off the accumulated blood and flesh on Slyce's wrist blades, keeping the heat of his flame high enough to clean the weapons without getting so hot they lost their edge or tempering.
"Strong." Storm's comment was a little less obvious, until he added, "Never needed any healing."
Thorn nodded, acknowledging all three, then focused on the loosely-piled skin. Unlike animal hide, it was thin, fragile stuff, easily damaged. If he'd calculated right, the spells he planned would both protect it, and keep it linked to its owner as though it was still in the process of being removed regardless of any healing that happened later.
If the spell failed and the slave became recalcitrant again, he could always retry the experiment after the man had healed. Thorn suspected Storm would regrow his skin as many times as needed. Slyce would certainly remove it just as often. Sear would need to be allowed to play as well, of course, but that could also be healed easily enough. Storm wouldn't let such a wonderful plaything die of heart failure from excessive pain.
He focused his attention on the slave and the skin, then on the shape he needed his magic to take. Lightning crackled around his fingers, subsiding as he released his magic. A blue haze settled over the slave and the skin, sank in.
Thorn bent, and stroked the skin with one finger.
The slave jerked from semi-consciousness with a hoarse cry.
Thorn's grin would have terrified the man if it hadn't been concealed by his helm. He turned to Slyce. "You can finish now."
"Yes!" Slyce bent, delicately sliding one blade between skin and flesh.
The man screamed again, and would have tried to pull away if he hadn't been stretched so tight he couldn't manage more than a few feeble twitches. Blood oozed and smeared the wall and shackles.
Thorn was impressed. It took skill to take a man's skin off without breaking any of the major blood vessels. There were too many places where veins ran close to the surface.
Slyce pulled the skin away. "All done, Master." He licked his blades with obvious relish.
The slave clearly had little strength left: as soon as Slyce stopped he stopped struggling and lapsed back into agonized stupor.
"Storm, fold that up and make sure it's preserved." Thorn indicated the skin.
The slave's hoarse breathing became sobs while the minion worked, carefully folding the awkward, blood-smeared hide so that he finished with a neat bundle that could be easily carried in one hand. "For you, Master."
Thorn laid the bundle on his upturned palm. "Heal him."
The blue moved quickly, although it took him a long time to finish the healing this time. Regrowing skin was evidently a more complex endeavor than healing wounds.
The slave's breathing grew more regular as Storm worked, and he slipped into true unconsciousness.
Thorn had seen the effect often enough. When the pain stopped, the subject would often pass out. Waking them was a simple matter of a flicker of lightning in their direction: that tiny exercise in magic invariably brought the subject to full wakefulness in the space of a few heartbeats.
Finally, the minion stepped back. "Him all healed, Master."
Thorn gave a single nod, then sent a short burst of lightning in the man's direction.
The slave jerked in his shackles and turned a terror-filled gaze to the Overlord. "Please... no more..."
Thorn stepped forward. "Tell me about the plot," he said in a soft, cold voice.
The man shuddered. "I... I don't know much... But Centurion Lucius, he gave the orders. He set us up, me, Marcus, Petrus, Centurion's sister Lucilla... Petrus got hisself killed in the fighting, but the rest of us came here and did as we was told... Until Lucilla got a message from the Centurion to move."
"How did the message get in?" Thorn demanded. If he didn't have something to vent fury on, and soon, he'd kill Gnarl and damn the consequence. The minion master should never have let any of this through.
"The baby stuff, Lord... one of the Centurion's people in the suppliers... Dunno who..." He swallowed.
The slave didn't need any more prompting. "We was to take the babies... kill the women and the old pervy minion if we could."
Thorn's hands clenched into tight fists.
The slave screamed. "Please, Master, please! No more!"
Thorn forced himself to relax, forced his hands to open.
The slave hung limp, gasping, for a few moments before he managed to summon words again. "Couldn't get enough gas t'do it... just grabbed the babies... Lucilla an' Marcus went on ship with Centurion... I was t' stay back, pass on anything I could... in th' food orders... coded."
"We'll discuss that later," Thorn growled. "Where did they take the babies?"
The man sobbed. "I... Please Master, I dunno fer sure... It's... somewhere west of Everlight is all I know. Please, don't punish me... I dunno anything else..."
"Why take them?" Thorn cut the pleading short with a snarl.
The slave whimpered. "Dunno, Master... Centurion never said why... y'don't ask questions in th' legions."
Thorn studied the shattered wreck of a man for a moment before he said, "Let him down."
All three minions looked disappointed, but they hurried to comply.
"We'll discuss the rest later."
The trouble deepens. And Gnarl is a very lucky minion.